The Transfiguration of Jesus is a bit like those movie previews they play before the featured attraction, the ones narrated by the guy with the big voice. They reveal just enough of the movie to make you want to see it, without giving away too much of the plot. Coming soon to a theater near you. A sneak preview of coming attractions. And that’s what the Transfiguration is. A sneak peak, a glimpse of Jesus’ glory as the Son of God and the coming attraction of the kingdom He brings with His dying and rising.
Jesus told His disciples – “I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” And then they had a whole week to think about it and wonder. Who was He talking about? And when? And where? And what will happen, what will they see? So many questions. Luke says it was eight days later. Matthew and Mark say six days. Luke counts inclusively and makes it eight. Eight days is new creation talk. First day of the second week. I believe it’s intentional on Luke’s part. This is a vision that has many layers, among them the resurrection and the new creation that comes with Jesus.
Eight days after saying that some of them would not taste death until they saw the kingdom of God, Jesus went up to a mountain to pray along with three disciples – Peter, James, and John. Two or three witnesses were required to establish a truth. Jesus is making sure that future generations who would hear of this would be able to trust that it happened. Peter, James, and John are given a unique privilege and gift – to see Jesus in His glory prior to His death, resurrection, and ascension.
While Jesus was praying (and in Luke, Jesus always prays at key moments on His ministry), His face was changed in appearance, and His clothing became dazzling white. What was going on there? This was a “epiphany,” a manifestation. Jesus’ divinity was shining through His humanity, causing His face and clothing to glow with an earthly brightness. It was a visual reminder that this Jesus was certainly man but He was no ordinary man. He was also God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. Though deeply hidden beneath His humanity, Jesus’ divine nature and His glory as the Son of God were there. They were simply hidden from the eye.
In the OT, Moses glowed when he came down from Mt. Sinai after meeting face to face with God. It’s as though the glory of God’s presence rubbed off, or at least created a temporary effect. It was kind of like a glow in the dark watch that glows for a while after being placed in the sun. With Moses, that was a temporary and fading glory, indicating that his covenant was temporary and fading. But Jesus’ glow came from within Himself, as every cell of His humanity glowed with the glory of God. This was the glory that filled the tabernacle and the temple. This was the glory of the pillar of cloud and fire. This was the sign that God Himself was present on this mountain. This was the Lord’s mountain of which Isaiah had spoken, the mountain where God would reveal His glory to the nations and the nations would flock to the Lord.
With Jesus appeared Moses and Elijah. Elijah had been whisked off to heaven in chariots of fire. Moses had been buried by God Himself in a secret location. They represented the Torah and the Prophets. The Torah had come through Moses on Sinai. Elijah was the first and foremost of the prophets. And here they appear together with glorified Jesus. Jesus had come to fulfill Moses and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah had pointed to Jesus as “types,” and now the fulfillment was standing there in His glory and they in glory with Him. It’s a little sneak preview of the resurrection, when those long dead will rise in Jesus’ glory.
Luke tells us that they were talking with Jesus about His departure which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. The word Luke uses here is “exodus.” They were talking about His exodus, and who better to talk about that then Moses? Luke anchors this vision in Jesus’ death on a cross and His resurrection from the dead and His ascension forty days later. This is His “exodus” by which He brings all of humanity through death to life and glory. The transfiguration is a preparation for that. The Jesus who shines like the sun, who radiates the glory of God on earth, is the same Jesus who hangs dead in the darkness on Good Friday bearing the sin of the world. You need to make that hard connection between the mountain of transfiguration that proclaims Jesus the Son of God and Mt. Calvary, the mountain of His cross, that proclaims Him the Savior of the world.
Peter, James, and John nearly missed the whole thing. They were “heavy with sleep.” Sleep? That’s right. Sleep. Just as they same three would be heavy with sleep by the Mount of Olives when Jesus asked them to pray while they were with Him in the garden. They’d just hiked up a mountain; Jesus was praying. Ever doze off while praying? Sure you do. Admit it. We doze in prayer, in worship, and yes, even in the midst of the sermon. That’s our spiritual lethargy at work, our sleepiness and deadness to God’s Word and prayer. It seems that every time Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him, they wind up falling asleep. We’re certainly not going to enter the kingdom of God by way of our prayers if even Peter, James, and John can’t pull it off in the visible presence of Jesus.
When they awoke, they got an eyefull — Jesus glowing, Moses and Elijah standing with Him. That will wake you up in a hurry! And Peter blurts out, “Master, it’s good we’re here,” meaning it’s good we’re here to see this. He tries to capture the moment, memorialize it, kind of the way we have to take a snapshot of everything. It’s as though Peter pulled out his cellphone and said, “Could you guys pose for a quick picture? Moses, would you move in a little closer? Elijah, slide over a bit to your left. There. Good. Now hold that pose and smile. Peter wants to build three tents, three booths as in the Feast of Booths when all Israel lived in a tent on Jerusalem’s hillside. One for Moses, one for Elijah, one for Jesus.
We do that. We want to preserve the “religious moment.” The ecstatic experience. The feeling. The vision. Whatever. We want to memorialize the mountaintop. Make it the normative thing. We’re like junkies for the religious experience. Luke says Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Whether it was fear or sleep or whatever, visions like this defy words and our ability to fully comprehend them. Just in time, a cloud came, the cloud that once filled the temple. It surrounded them and even the disciples were take up into it. The cloud concealed the glory and the Voice of the Father preached from the cloud: “This is my Son; my Chosen One. Hear Him.”
The same Voice was heard speaking from heaven at Jesus’ Baptism, identifying HIm as the suffering Servant-Son. Again the Father speaks, making it clear to the disciples and also to us, that Jesus is unique and there is none other like Him. He is greater than Moses, greater than Elijah, greater than any religious man, sage, guru, prophet or leader who has ever walked the face of this earth. He alone does the “exodus” of His death and resurrection to save us. He alone has a Baptism that can wash away the stain of sin. He alone can give us His Body and Blood to eat and drink as our Bread and Wine. He alone has the words of eternal life. Moses cannot save you. His words cannot save you. His commandments cannot save you. Elijah cannot save you. Only Jesus.
Peter recalled that mountain top experience many years later when he wrote these words: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” He was an eyewitness. He saw and testified to these things. But as great as the vision was – the glory, the cloud, the Voice, Moses and Elijah – Peter would direct our attention to something more sure – the Word, the prophetic Word that shines like a lamp into the darkened recesses of our hearts.
Visions don’t create faith. Visions don’t turn the heart. Visions don’t forgive sin or raise the dead. A bright shining Jesus may be a spectacular sight, but His Word is what brings you forgiveness, life, and salvation. His Word you have in all its glorious forms – Baptism, Supper, preaching. And with His Word, His glory.
In the name of Jesus,